Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

Part of the Doc's SEC Week.

Off a stunning post-championship decline to 8-5 in 2008, LSU's embarrassment of blue-chip riches didn't exactly restore the natural order in last fall's comeback campaign. But 2009 was no disaster: The Tigers spent most of the season in the top 10, didn't lose a game they were favored to win, beat Georgia, Auburn and Arkansas and finished in a New Year's Day bowl. From one perspective, at 9-4, they may have been only a controversial call at Alabama and a botched clock drill at Ole Miss and/or a last-minute field goal by Penn State from winning 11 for the fourth time in five years.

But even most LSU fans are sober enough to realize the flip side of that reality, which is that the Tigers more closely resembled a team hanging by a thread. In no particular order, they were:

a) 0-4 against teams that finished in the final polls, after going 1-4 in 2008.
b) Next-to-last in the SEC in rushing offense and dead last in total offense, even behind Vanderbilt.
c) Outgained on average by 23 yards per game, joining Vanderbilt and Kentucky as the only SEC teams on the negative side of the ledger for the entire season. They finished in the red in SEC play (–33.4 per game) for the second year in a row.
And d) Winners despite being significantly outgained by double-digit underdogs Washington (–157), Mississippi State (–111) and Louisiana Tech (–76). The 31-23 win in Seattle was sparked by an interception return for a touchdown; the great escape at Miss. State required punt and interception returns for touchdowns, to go with a +4 turnover margin and a dramatic goal line stand to preserve the win in the final two minutes. They also got a punt return to help overcome a hole in total offense in an overtime win over Arkansas.

That's a lot of lightning striking just to keep the bottom from falling out. As the game-changing runbacks against MSU and Arkansas (and Penn State, to set up a short second-half touchdown drive) suggest, the Tigers sometimes relied heavily on the "hidden yards" supplied by the best punt return game in the nation. Both of the players responsible for that success, Trindon Holliday and Chad Jones, are gone, along with most of the starters on defense, the leading receiver and the top two running backs.

Most importantly as far as preseason expectations go, though, the Tigers lost the assumption that a top-10, BCS-contending season is akin to a birthright. What kind of powerhouse needs turnovers and goal-line stands to beat Washington and Mississippi State. The oddsmakers put them again at 7.5 to 8 wins. Collectively, the preseason magazines project LSU to languish at fourth place in the West Division, behind favored upstarts Arkansas and Auburn, and barely slip them into the top 20 after six straight seasons in the preseason top ten.

Like last year, the talent is still there, if you believe the recruiting rankings, which have remained as strong as ever over the last five years. On that level, based on talent alone, 2010 could be a return to form; as long as the blue chips are coming in, any year could be a return to form. (Just ask Florida State.) But last year, with an entrenched quarterback and a new, respected defensive coordinator, was the year to put doubts about the trajectory of the program to bed. Instead, it only magnified them. If one mediocre effort is a mulligan, two in a row is the new normal.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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